Interview with Matty Roberts

August 10th, 2022
Cover image of the post

I decided to interview Matty after reading their YA cyberpunk thriller Child Of Etherclaw.

Hi and welcome! Can you please introduce yourself?

Hi there! *waves* I’m Matty Roberts, sci-fi author, engineer, and environment nerd. I’ve done a lot of different stuff over the years from journalism to cybersecurity to renewable energy. And if you ever want someone to play weird board games, listen to punk records, or plant a tree with, I’m your person!

I’d like to start with discussing your book — I had lots of fun reading it! :) What inspired you to write it?

So, Child of Etherclaw actually started out as a short story several years ago where I was exploring the idea of radical climate change mitigation strategies. The short story kinda got out of hand and started taking on a personality all its own. The “Void Pillars” as a means to cool the planet became part of the backstory to Child of Etherclaw, and the next thing I knew, there were fantasy bits becoming intertwined with the sci-fi, and several characters that had been taking up space in my mind forever were beating at my cranium to get out and hit the page. And oops, suddenly we have a novel.

I loved the characters — they felt very real and human. All of them were interesting, but let’s focus on two, starting with Fenlee. She’s brave, stubborn, intelligent, driven, often careless. She cares a lot about her family and friends even though she might act tough. She also has a prosthetic leg and struggles with acne, and she’s a talented engineer. She’s been through a lot, and I think she’s a real badass. What was the most important to you when creating her and what do you love the most about her?

Oh, thank you! Fenlee is very near and dear to my heart. I felt like I grew up with her, which, in a way I did. Her strengths reflect several of my friends, and her doubts and anxieties reflect my own. That said, Fenlee is very much her own person, and I wouldn’t take that away from her by attributing too much influence—she really found her own voice.

It was important to me that Fenlee be a badass, but realistically so. She has a lot of challenges in her day-to-day life, but she takes control of her world rather than letting it take control of her. She not only finds her own path, but also finds her own family.

Was anything about writing her challenging?

Going through my drafts, I discovered that a lot of Fenlee’s dialog just went on, and on, and on. She’d get going on a topic and just wouldn’t know when to stop. I ended up cutting a fair amount of her dialog and turning other dialog segments into her internalized thoughts.

I felt awful any time I would need to knock Fenlee down on the page. I hate putting any of my characters into tragic or painful situations, but I felt especially guilty with Fenlee. Writing those scenes with her was sometimes emotionally challenging for me, and I’d need to take some breaks. As a reader, I can take gritty horror and really dark stuff, but as a writer, I really struggle putting my on-page friends through the grinder.

Another character I loved and found absolutely fascinating is Nico — a feral boy from the undercity. His behavior was very peculiar, and I thought that the way he used etherclaw was wholesome and sweet! Tell me everything you can about him. How did he come to be? What was important and how did you go about creating his personality and behavior?

Nico has a rich and tragic backstory that will be revealed in subsequent books. Without going too deep, a, uhh, buncha awful stuff happened to him near another Void Pillar down in the equatorial regions. He made his way north with a group of refugees, and found his place among some other etherclaw users in New Cascadia.

Nico is a very caring person. He uses his etherclaw bond in empathetic ways that connect with and benefit others. Sharing his feelings like this is the most natural way for him to communicate. He wasn’t raised with the advantages of attentive parents, friends, or education. But despite the horrors he was born into and grew up with as a young kid, he still just wants for those around him to be happy and to make the world a better place. It’s not so much that Nico is an optimist, as he’s able to see the true slivers of light in the darkest of places.

Can't wait to learn more about him! Let's talk about world-building. You’ve created a compelling dystopian setting. Were there any real-life issues you wanted to explore through it?

I wanted to ask: What would a world rebuilding itself from an apocalyptic state look like? What are the global influences that would take over and fill a leadership vacuum in those circumstances? How would old-world infrastructure be used?

I feel like the answers to these questions create the perfect environment for the rapid, rise of dystopian authoritarianism (is there any other kind of authoritarianism?) In Child of Etherclaw, I wanted to explore what class segregation would look like, and how those living in a physically separated lower class would manage in their daily lives. There’re also the issues of control and access to information—the availability of information to the residents of New Cascadia varies based on class and job category. And, of course, environmental concerns are a backdrop to everything.

I’m very curious about the void pillars. I’ve never encountered a similar concept anywhere. Can you tell me more about them? How did you come up with this technology?

The Void Pillars were originally part of a short story I was drafting. I wanted them to be an absolute over-the-top, totally ridiculous technological solution to climate change. The idea was to demonstrate that by waiting too long to act, humanity would be faced with using dramatic and radical tools to mitigate the climate, as it would be too late to prevent catastrophic changes.

In that short story, humans mined massive amounts of iron from asteroids and built these large hollow heat sinks all over the earth. They reached into space and were filled with vacuum, so the heat from the planet would transfer through them and radiate into the void beyond.

A similar example might be a glass full of a cold beverage. The heat energy from the outside surface of the glass will radiate in and slowly warm the liquid. In the case of the Void Pillars, the atmospheric heat is transferred to the vacuum inside the pillar and then vented into space. This is obviously wildly impractical and I don’t think would ever work in reality.

As Child of Etherclaw developed, the Void Pillars became the product of the Aeons, an unknown biomechanical entity found within our asteroid belt. Their backstory will also be revealed in the second and third novels.

Exciting! What else can readers expect from the next book in the series? And how many more are you planning to write?

The Etherclaw series is set to be a trilogy. I’m currently refining book 2, which will feature almost entirely the same cast. Events start moving much earlier in this second book and at a pretty rapid clip. The stakes are higher and the threats are darker. There are also quite a few little loose threads from Child of Etherclaw that will be dealt with.

I don’t want to provide too many spoilers, but here’s a little character preview: She didn’t get much time on the page in Child of Etherclaw, but Loxi will be back in action in the second book. She’s a very special character to me, and the first book was only the very beginning of her arc.

Can't wait! What do you think will happen to humanity in the future? Is the scenario from your book realistic (maybe minus the aliens :)?

One thing I love about sci-fi is that it presents a realm of possibilities for us. Cyberpunk, for example, is not supposed to be an instruction manual, but rather, it should illustrate a possible future where we could very well end up (and arguably are ending up) if we’re not careful. Sci-fi gives us the tools to better understand these future possibilities and how to both prevent them, and deal with them should we end up in any of the worst-case scenarios.

Beyond the idea of Void Pillars and alien entities, I think the future dystopian scenario laid out in Child of Etherclaw is one of many different plausible roads we could go down. But I don’t think it’s that likely.

I think we, collectively, are starting to make some of the necessary changes for a better future. It may be naively optimistic of me, but I feel that the forces of fascism at play in the world now are there as a last gasp of a dying old-world conservatism being dragged kicking and screaming against its will into a more progressive future. It might not be pretty for a while; I do think that things on almost every front are going to get worse—perhaps far worse—before they get better. But I’m confident in our ability to build a better future, and I believe the will exists to get there.

What are some of the most important issues that humanity should address to have a better future?

We’ve got to decouple money and politics. Right now in the US, but in many other nations as well, this is an ongoing roadblock to genuine change and progress. Assuming this magically gets done, then what?

I believe one of the single biggest issues facing humankind and the future of our planet is our meat consumption. Living in Colorado especially, it’s directly evident how destructive animal agriculture is. Vast quantities of water from our already diminishing supplies are used to grow animal feed, and ranchlands remain clearcut instead of planting trees and regenerating ecosystems. The quantities of water, land use, and carbon and methane emissions required to create a calorie of any meat versus a calorie of any plant protein are so vastly skewed in favor of plants that the need for change here should be clear to anyone comparing the data. Our current world-wide level of meat consumption is entirely unsustainable, and cannot be part of a future where humanity thrives.

Land use is also a very big area where we need to see both policy shifts and, more importantly, cultural shifts. We all want our single-family home with manicured lawn, but building out endless sprawl to accommodate this is pushing our ecosystems to the limits. Creating denser communities allows for shared more efficient heating/cooling energy use, more walkability, easier access to services, more practical mass transit and fewer cars, and the list goes on and on. It also means we won’t be encroaching so deeply into the natural world and wrecking important habitats. We need to stop framing it as bears and mountain lions coming into our towns and instead understand that we are the ones invading their spaces.

Finally, I believe we need to collectively set goals for our species. We should have a list of ambitious “moonshot” style projects that build toward ensuring an equitable future for all, where no marginalized group is left behind and everyone has an active role in achieving these goals. This starts with fundamentals such as access to quality healthcare, education, and housing. These are problems that are absolutely within our ability to solve, and we should be throwing everything we have at them.

I feel that if we view our place in the world with a little more humility, we can get there, we can make this work.

What do you think is the best-case scenario for us and how likely is it?

I don’t know how much things will realistically improve within our lifetimes, which…yeah, that’s a real downer. But I do think we will see the trajectory shift in our lifetimes toward long term improvements.

Best-case scenario? We get some highly competent and altruistic leaders in key government positions around the world over this next decade to quickly move things forward. That doesn’t seem terribly likely as so many of the current political structures in place seem dead-set on preventing it. But in wild times, wild things can happen.

There is a line about you on your website that I find really beautiful. ‘…I'm a vegan enby nerd who is in love with this world and will forever be doing all I can to make it a better place.’ Is that why you work in renewable energy? What other ways of making the world a better place are there?

Thank you! I do love this world, and I think we have a very special place here on this little blue spec in our remote corner of the universe. All the things that had to come together in just the right way to make this world what it is today absolutely blows my mind. Who wouldn’t want to protect and preserve that? It’s so cool! :)

So, yes, this was the primary motivating factor for me to move into the renewable energy domain. There are a billion different ways to make the world a better place, and that was one way I felt I could make a positive impact.

Looking at that same sentence, there are a couple of other ways. For one, I think veganism is a way to promote positive, healthy change in the world. It’s often misunderstood as merely a diet, but it’s really an ethical stance that includes animal welfare and environmental concerns. Veganism is a strict dedication, but if we were to all reduce our consumption of animal products, even a marginal amount, the results could be literally world-changing.

Another way to make the world a better place? I’m an enby (non-binary) nerd! We should all be able to explore who and what we are, proclaiming our identity proudly. I believe the most freeing experience is embracing your true self. It’s really hard and takes a ton of work, but I believe that only once we understand and accept ourselves, are we able to truly understand and accept those around us. Maybe it’s a lifelong journey for some, and others may not ever be in a position to safely come out, but it’s a journey we should all be free and encouraged to experience.

Beautifully said :) What do you like doing for fun?

Oh, so many things! I love writing. It’s challenging, rewarding, cathartic, and ranges from fun to epically frustrating. I just wish I had more time for it. But what is writing without reading? Books are my happy place—especially those where the author has crafted a rich world I can sink into and ponder between reading sessions. My TBR pile is already huge, and constantly getting bigger. I will never get out from under it, and I have made my peace with that.

I also love watching weird TV shows with my partner, facing off against my kids in video games, and making music with my friends.

What are your favorite books and / or authors?

Uh oh, this changes constantly. These are some recent reads that really stood out to me:

Sawkill Girls by Clarie Legrand

Lost Stars by Claudia Gray (This book has expert-level character arcs. Just…wow.)

Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

If you could travel to a world described in one of the books you’ve read, where would you go and why?

Oh, yikes! I read a lot of dystopian sci-fi and horror. I can easily think of many worlds I would not want to go to! But I think if I had to choose, I’d take something out of fantasy. Perhaps I’d choose to go somewhere in Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series. She’s crafted an amazingly rich, diverse world, and I feel as though I’d get along with some of the characters pretty well. Plus, they have coffee shops, so, worst case, I’m sure I could find a cozy, out of the way town and just drink coffee all day. Works for me!

You mentioned board games earlier. What are your favorite ones?

Board games! Yes! Great question!

There is always a warm spot in my heart for Dungeons & Dragons. It's such a wonderful, collaborative social experience. In the most recent season of Stranger Things, I LOVED when Erica Sinclair walked in and put the Hellfire Club in their place, throwing down with her dice-rolling skills and D&D knowledge. It was a great scene, but I also feel that the series at large does a fantastic job of illustrating how those who might not fit in so well elsewhere can bond over the shared experience of building characters and going on adventures together.

Other amazing games that come to mind include:

Lords of Waterdeep — Yep, this is technically D&D, but also...not? It's more of a strategy game than a roleplaying game. A lot of thought was put into crafting this, and no two game sessions are alike. I feel it's best played with 3-4 people, and it does take a minute to learn, but everyone I know who's played has thoroughly enjoyed it.

One Deck Dungeon — This is an awesome little 2 person co-op game. It's also a little refreshing in that 100% of the characters are women, and not portrayed in a typical troped-up fantasy sort of way. (Which reminds me, I need to get my own copy of this!)

Exploding Kittens — The cards are adorable, it's quick and easy to play, and you can find a copy almost anywhere.

If I had to make a single recommendation, it'd be a weird little card game from Rio Grande Games called Bohnanza. There's nothing special about the box or artwork (okay, the box is kinda hideous if we're being honest here), the description makes it sound rather dull—it's a bean trading game!—but I've had more fun playing it with people than I ever would've imagined. It's extremely fast to pick up and learn, play time isn't terribly long, and the box is small enough to take with you. It works well in groups of varying skill levels and gaming interest, and I don't know of anyone who's played it who hasn't had a great time.

What’s your wildest dream?

When I was younger, I wanted to tour the world playing punk music. Got a little older and now I feel like if I can honestly say I’ve positively impacted others’ lives, there’d be no greater sense of accomplishment. But that’s maybe my biggest dream, and you asked about wildest. I’d have to say my wildest dream would be to one day travel into orbit and be able to look down on our world from above. Not counting on it, but it’d be a blast.

I hope both the biggest and the wildest one will come true! If there is anything you’d like to add, please do :)

Best cure for boredom? Plant a tree! Then one day in the future, you can sit under it and read a book. :)

Thank you so much for the interview! <3

Thank you! That was a lot of fun.

You can get Child Of Etherclaw at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Apple and other bookstores or read my review if you want to know more.

Check out Matty's website, Twitter or Goodreads.

The featured image depicts Matty — a person with short blue and purple hair looking down. They're wearing glasses, a short-sleeved black jacket with a pin depicting a fox (I think?). They also have a nose ring and a part of a tattoo is visible on their arm.

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